During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare services have never been more important. While there have been plenty of discussions about the need to maintain essential health services, too little focus has been placed on the toll that this puts on healthcare providers. In this article, we’re going to cover a few ways that healthcare workers can manage their wellbeing during these difficult times. Here are a few must-know self-care tips to survive and thrive during the pandemic.
1. Know Your Enemy: How Stress and Anxiety Impact Your Wellbeing
Stress isn’t inherently a negative experience. A normal amount of stress helps sharpen the senses and optimize our thinking and behavior during high-risk situations. However, when stress is prolonged, these positive qualities begin to deteriorate. This can have serious psychological and physical consequences, leading to burnout, depression, cardiovascular issues, and more.
Without proper coping strategies and self-care, even normal workplace stress is enough to push healthcare professionals into burnout and depression. However, these aren’t normal times. The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed what’s expected of healthcare professionals, and it’s raised the bar on the level of workplace stress they have to cope with.
According to the New York State Office of Mental Health, normal reactions to prolonged disasters responses, such as COVID-19, include:
- Feeling as if you must stay on the scene until the work is finished, even if your replacement has arrived.
- Feeling the need to override stress and fatigue so you can stay committed to your work.
- Denying yourself rest and recovery time so you can continue contributing to the response.
- Being personally moved by the gravity of the situation, experiencing sadness, grief, or anger.
These reactions are expected in light of a disaster, but behavior this becomes dangerous and abnormal when healthcare professionals continue to deny themselves basic levels of self-care.
Understanding the Unique Stressors of Healthcare Professionals
Unlike many other lines of work, healthcare workers at the frontline fear for their own health and the health of their families. By constantly coming in contact with COVID-positive patients, they’re facing major health risks every day. This can lead to a deep sense of anxiety about both the health of patients and themselves.
The National Center for PTSD reports that healthcare workers are experiencing stress related to:
- Protective Equipment: Strong safety precautions can reduce fears of transmission. However, there’s a physical strain related to long-term use of protective equipment, such as dehydration, heat, and exhaustion. This life-saving equipment also has a psychological toll that must be considered.
- Physical and Social Isolation: Even in a bustling hospital, the physical restrictions that a responsible pandemic response requires can lead to a deep sense of loneliness. Even after working hours, healthcare professionals have to go home and continue social distancing.
- Transmission Anxiety: Elevated fear regarding COVID-19 transmission can be a source of extreme anxiety. While many people are experiencing anxiety about social distancing and responsible hygiene practices, healthcare workers are frequently coming face-to-face with COVID-positive patients. This real-life threat can make it difficult to distinguish a “normal” level of anxiety from a psychologically abnormal level of anxiety.
- Lack of Spontaneity: To keep themselves and their patients safe, healthcare professionals have to follow strict procedures throughout the day. Even when they get off of work, they’re still obligated to follow social procedures directed at the public. This creates a lack of spontaneity that can make each day progressively more mundane and void of life.
These work-related stressors don’t go away when it’s time to head home. Healthcare workers may experience lingering anxiety about transmission, feelings of dread about going back to work, and stress related to the challenges that the general public faces during social distancing. So, what can healthcare professionals do to strike a healthier balance between stress and wellness?
2. Finding the Right Fit: Personalizing Your Self-Care Routine
Now that we have a clearer picture of some of the biggest challenges to maintaining wellness, we can begin looking at solutions. Self-care is often touted as a great defense against stress, but it’s important to understand that self-care is simply an umbrella term for a variety of practices that emphasize wellness.
What self-care routine works for one person won’t be the same for another. You know yourself best, so as you’re determining what wellness-boosting activities are best for you, keep your specific needs in mind. The International Self-Care Foundation recognizes seven pillars of self-care. Understanding these pillars can help you identify what areas need more work in your life:
- Knowledge and health literacy: Having the knowledge necessary to make appropriate health decisions. This includes identifying problems that may require expert attention and understanding the information that health specialists give you. It seems reasonable to expect that healthcare professionals have an edge here.
- Mental wellbeing: Maintaining self-esteem and having self-awareness regarding your needs and the status of your health. This is an important pillar when it comes to identifying significant stressors in your life and finding self-care activities that can bring a bit of balance to your life.
- Physical activity: Engaging in appropriate physical activity for your lifestyle and your mental and physical needs. Maintaining an exercise routine can help you ward off health issues, such as dementia, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and colon and breast cancer.
- Healthy eating: Limiting the intake of unhealthy food and maintaining a nutrient-rich diet. Sticking to an appropriate diet can help you keep your energy levels up and maintain a healthy weight.
- Risk avoidance: Taking preventative measures to avoid preventable issues. This includes getting vaccinated, avoiding self-destructive habits like smoking, practicing safe sex, protecting yourself from the sun, and driving carefully.
- Good hygiene: Having access to sanitation facilities and regularly maintaining your hygiene. Washing your hands regularly and practicing food safety practices rank among the most significant factors to ward off communicable diseases.
- Rational use of products and services: Taking advantage of available health services, products, programs, and facilities. This includes using science-backed products, such as fluoride toothpaste, using wellness programs, such as nutrition planning and gym attendance, using prescription medications safely, and more.
What Does This Mean for You?
If you feel like you aren’t fulfilling one or more of these pillars of self-care, consider self-care activities that will fill that gap. By making sure your lifestyle satisfies these pillars, you can rest easier knowing that you’re optimizing your health, preventing health issues, and boosting your overall sense of autonomy and wellness.
Common self-care activities associated with these pillars include:
- Jogging, biking, or other forms of exercise.
- Yoga, stretching, or other forms of light exercise.
- Starting enjoyable hobbies such as gardening, playing an instrument, and more.
- Practicing introspective activities such as journaling or even virtual therapy. Here’s 20 prompts to try.
- “Unplugging” from your devices during the day or during other self-care activities.
- Practicing social self-care by joining clubs or speaking to family and friends.
- Reading an enjoyable book.
3. MAke a Commitment: Keeping Self-Care in Your (Busy) Life
Planning a self-care routine is important, but so is putting it all in action. Finding unique ways to commit to your new lifestyle is a great way to prove to yourself that you’re ready for change. Here are some great ways you can do this:
- Make daily self-care tasks just as important as everything else on your to-do list. It’s easy to prioritize work as “necessary” and everything else as secondary, but nothing is more important than your health. If you use a schedule or to-do list to organize your day, make sure your self-care routine is represented there equally.
- Find a great subscription box for regular self-care reminders. Subscription boxes are a great way to spice up your month and keep your wellness on track. BroglieBox is a great example of this. They send curated mental health care packages to your door! Their boxes go through their six pillars of mental wellness: relaxation, gratitude, sleep, fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness. Beyond keeping you on track, it’s always a great surprise to see what’s new in each box.
- Keep track of your self-care progress: Find a space where you can keep track of how great you’re doing and identify spots where you could improve. This can help you identify patterns in your behavior, such as what events make it harder for you to maintain your routine – that way, you can plan for them in advance.
Set Yourself Up for Success
If you get too ambitious or complicated with your self-care routine, it’s going to be difficult to stick with it – especially as other life events begin demanding more of your time. Just like with other important habits, it’s too easy to fall off of the wagon, so you should keep your self-care strategy flexible.
We also recommend removing stress triggers from your life. Sometimes it’s a lot of little things that end up making us feel stressed out – but if you’re working long hours in a health facility, anything can become the straw that broke the camel’s back. Try rooting out as many of these unhealthy stress triggers as you can.
Here are a few common places to look:
- Social media accounts that make you feel bad about yourself or your life. There’s no reason to keep following an account if it just makes you feel bad. Are there other accounts out there that might be more uplifting or inspirational? Follow those instead.
- Cut back on binge-watching and start self-care activities that make you proud. There’s nothing wrong with losing yourself in a great series, but if you feel like you’re just vegging out on the couch, maybe open up a book, learn an instrument, or exercise instead. Fulfilling self-care tasks go a long way!
- Keep your journal entries positive. Journaling is a useful tool, but people tend to bias their entries by writing about shortcomings and regrets. This creates an inauthentic picture of their lives. Try emphasizing positive things from your day too! Over time, you’ll be surprised how many there are.
The value of self-care can’t be overstated. While all of the new stressors in the health professions may be overwhelming, it’s important to remember that you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. We hope that these self-care tips have given you the framework you need to evaluate your lifestyle and make impactful changes. Afterall, you deserve to feel great.
Wellness In Real Life (WIRL) was created to revolutionize the wellness industry by connecting mental health and healthcare professionals with like-minded people. Founded by Dr. Holland—Kornegay, the vision of Wellness In Real Life is to help healthcare professionals improve their mindset, enhance their mental health, optimize their fitness health, and network through the online WIRL community and events.
To become a member of the Wellness In Real Life community, visit https://www.wellnessirl.com/provider-sign-up#join